Once a race series for gentleman drivers, the Maserati Trofeo has changed. Maserati’s rapidly expanding market is now global, and this is reflected in the venues of the race series: two test sessions in Italy, three European triple headers, and three more triple headers in US, China and the UAE.
Last year 84 drivers from 24 countries competed. Next year’s Trofeo will be even more global. Yours truly was once again invited to compete, this time at the Silverstone round, sharing the car with Spanish racer/journalist Jaime Hernandez.
The weekend consisted of two 45-minute free-practice rounds on Friday, two 20-minute shared qualifying sessions, and two half-hour solo races (one each) plus one 50-minute shared race.
As for the gentleman-drivers label, I counted one, maybe two, but that was it. Due to economic cut-backs in GT racing and the like, young pro drivers have migrated to the Trofeo. This has undoubtedly upped the pace. Drivers are now quick or very quick.
I had to restrain myself from strangling the commentator at Silverstone, who was as out-of-touch with the 2013 Trofeo as it was possible to be. His discourteous references to gentleman drivers were as inaccurate as they were irrelevant. The lap times of the Maserati Trofeo cars were within 10 per cent of the exceedingly rapid International Open GT cars that we shared the weekend with. Not only that, but the Trofeo is a one-make series, so the racing is close, with inevitably spectator-pleasing action.
The Trofeo World Series is by far the cheapest way to go racing at such a prestigious international level. The race hire costs are all-inclusive and come to Dh578,000. Two-driver teams split the cost. You can also buy a Gran Turismo MC and run it yourself provided it is to the same spec as the works cars. Next year’s cost may rise, but it will still be a fraction of running a GT team.
My teammate has several Trofeo races under his belt, with a fourth place and several top-10 finishes. With plenty of free-practice track time, all the drivers soon learned the intricacies of Silverstone’s 5.9km 18-corner GP circuit. “It is such a fast track,” was the usual comment.
Day one: Friday
I was up at seven o’clock to pack my helmet and overalls, which took seconds. Normally packing for a race takes days, but this was arrive-and-drive heaven. Silverstone became Italy; 30 degrees, blue skies, Modenese cuisine and the Maserati hospitality areas. I met my co-driver, mechanics, race engineers and car 99. It was fresh from a rebuild and had not turned a wheel. The number 99 reflected the company’s pre-centenary celebration.
After 90 minutes of free practice, all was OK. There was a bit of understeer, but that could be alleviated with an aggressive driving style, plenty of trail braking and forceful steering.
These cars are hard on tyres, or should I say that the Pirellis are extremely soft? Well, how else are tyre companies to stay in business? The talk in the pit lane was that the tyres take four laps to reach their optimum, then stay at their best for two laps. This is followed by progressive degradation, until the graph of grip falls off a cliff after about 35 minutes.
I noticed that corner-cutting (all four wheels outside the white lines that delineate the circuit) was rife. It meant less braking, faster mid-corner speeds and higher terminal speeds on the following straight. At Silverstone, corner-cutting is worth about three seconds a lap and is normally stamped on by the officials, so I never do it. More on this later…
At 7.45pm it was time for our data-logging appointment with our race engineer. This was a great teaching tool and one with which I am familiar. The data from any two drivers can be compared. We first compared my data with that of my teammate. Initially he was off the pace, as this was his first time at Silverstone. Then, true to form, he progressed. He found the data very useful. Then we compared my data with that of the quickest drivers. The Verdict? Although I was quicker than my teammate, I was being too gentle with the car. Also, I wasn’t corner-cutting; the steering angle giving the game away.
At any point on the track, the following data was compared: speed, brake point, brake effort, throttle position, gear selected and steering angle. As in Formula 1, all the Trofeo drivers use data comparisons to hone their skills.
Day Two: Saturday
New tyres were fitted for my qualifying session; tyres that I had to use for the first race. Knowing how they degraded and how one lock-up would wreck a tyre, I did three warm-up laps, two timed laps and one in-lap — so about half the 20-minute session. My qualifying time put me at a lowly mid-pack grid spot.
For the first race, managing my tyres was uppermost in my thoughts. On the two warm-up laps for the rolling start, some drivers weaved madly to heat their slicks, others — me included — did not. If the tyres were going to melt, why accelerate the process?
Just before the start, the 24 Maserati Granturismo MC racecars were lined up in Silverstone’s pit lane. As the cars began for the rolling start, the harsh bark of the unsilenced V8s shook the ground. The noise and sheer spectacle of these dramatic machines captured everyone within earshot. Everybody around could not fail to be impressed.
Inside car number 99, I was my usual self: calm on the outside, whilst thinking about the impending 240kph traffic jam.
Corner-cutting was still rife, but officials were taking note and handing out drive-through penalties, which were ignored and mysteriously went unpunished. As the chequered flag came down, I was midfield and content.
Day three: Sunday
My teammate was driving in race two; a 30-minute solo affair. Later in the day, we shared the car in a 50-minute two-driver race. The Trofeo cars had huge presence. Standing next to one of these racecars, the huge rear wing was plainly evident.
At the front there were a large splitter and winglets. Air that entered the front, exited through the bonnet. Air that reached the brakes exited through the front wings. The air that flowed under the car found a smooth undertray leading to a diffuser. Inexplicably, I found that slipstreaming the car in front didn’t gain me any time at all.
On the inside, we found a huge roll cage, which the cars were built around. The race seat required the driver to sit low for a line of sight under the steering wheel rim on to the dash display. It was essential to be able to see the gear-shift lights. Any short-shifting or any revving to the limiter would see a tsunami of competitors fly by; welcome to the world of one-make racing.
Behind the steering wheel were the paddle-shifters. The dash displayed the selected gear. There were two pedals and left-foot braking was a quicker way to drive. The power characteristics of the 488bhp V8 were good; plenty of torque, but you shouldn’t let the revs drop much below 6,000rpm or you’ll be swamped by Modena metal. There were six forward gears, but I only used five, attaining almost 240kph on the Hangar Straight. I never reach a car’s top speed on a race track. It takes at least an 8km straight to max-out a car — in this case 301kph. I can think of no race circuit with such a straight.
Speeds were attained quickly, and unlike a road-going car, much more speed can be carried towards and through the corners. G-forces were double that of a supercar. Braking had to be done instantly but progressively — a nanosecond of pressure to shift weight on to the front tyres, then progressive depression of the brake pedal, beyond my comfort zone, to achieve max deceleration for a second or two. Too much, and a wheel would lock and that tyre would be toast. Then I trailed slowly off the brakes for quarter-second as I turned.
With my left foot now relaxed, my right foot spent half-a-second balancing all four wheels and hence grip with 30 per cent power. Then a fraction of a second later I progressively fed in full power and the traction joined forces with the downforce to keep me on the track. If the car was not permanently on the very limit, I would have been nowhere. Welcome to pro level motorsport; it’s not easy.
While guests were tucking into magnificent Modenese cuisine, the drivers were not. It was too close to our 50-minute race. We decided that I should start, and that my teammate would take over at half-distance. My grid position was decided by my humble qualifying time from a previous race when I did only two timed laps. Fresh rubber was fitted for the two-driver race.
The start-line girls positioned a certain part of their anatomy in the drivers’ eye line. Pleasures of the flesh were not exactly uppermost in my mind. My job for wheels was to report on the facts from battle, but without putting a scratch on the car.
The start was the usual close-contact chaos, with 24 cars travelling flat-out and all fighting for the same piece of track. From a poor grid position, I fought my way from low midfield to midfield. Corner-cutting was still widespread — the sure sign of a professional one-make series — but I didn’t understand the disregard for penalties.
Overtaking in a one-make series where none of the drivers take any prisoners is not easy. In multi-marque racing, you plan your moves based on the weakness of a particular car. In historic racing, I will poke my nose partially alongside at turn-in, to test the driver ahead. He will either see me and leave space at the apex, or not see me and turn-in, whereupon I retreat two metres. In the Trofeo, you know exactly where you are 100 per cent of the time. Poke your nose in at turn-in, and bang, there will be blood.
The tyres started to degrade. This gave me an advantage, as in historic racing, the tyres are designed not to grip in the first place. I was in the top 10 just before the pit stop. My teammate took over. We lost a few places in the pit stop due to a malfunctioning speed limiter, which cut the motor.
My teammate made no mistakes and brought the car home in midfield. From someone who is a regular in the top 10, he commented on how much quicker the series has become. I still wondered whether it was legal to strangle the commentator. Sometimes murder is OK. For instance, if you are reversing into a parking space and someone nips in forwards.
Reflecting back on the weekend, I understood how it would take a while for a newcomer to achieve a midfield pace, let alone the pace of the front-runners. I could also see how one-make racing can be addictive. Most of all, it really hit home what a great race series this is.